Building for the future

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 May, 2008, 12:00am

Xinna speaks with the aggrieved yet defiant air of someone who has told her story a hundred times without results. Sitting at a table on a Hohhot footpath sipping Mongolian milk tea, she at first tries to ignore the secret police who watch her meeting with a visitor. Then she takes a more cynical approach and waves at them, smiling.

'I have nothing to hide. Let them watch,' said Ms Xinna, emphatic that what the government appears to be increasingly afraid of is unlikely to happen.

While there are simmering ethnic tensions between Han Chinese and the native Mongol population over the latter's loss of culture and influence, Mongols are nearly unanimous in saying they have little desire to see a Tibet-style uprising or any active protest. The Olympic torch will be in Inner Mongolia between July 11 and 13.

'People have suggested to me that something could be planned [a protest during the Olympic torch relay] but I have refrained so far. Not many people are willing to take those risks,' Ms Xinna said. 'Although sport has nothing to do with politics, the Olympics do have something to do with human rights. China promised better human rights when they got the Olympics, but they have not done that.'

Ms Xinna's husband, Hada, a Mongol intellectual and teacher, has been in jail since 1995. He is serving a 15-year sentence for founding the Southern Mongolian Democratic Alliance to defend Mongol rights. Human Rights in China and Amnesty International say Hada has been tortured in prison.

This has made Ms Xinna, who, like most Mongols, uses only one name, a minor local celebrity, and her small book and music shop near the Inner Mongolia University has become a warehouse of Mongol culture and a well-known reference point among intellectuals. She said that although she has never done more than peddle Mongol books and traditional music, police surveillance of her increased dramatically after the ethnic riots broke out in Tibet.

'In the last few weeks I've been under 24-hour surveillance. If I go out at one o'clock in the morning to walk my dog, there's someone sitting outside my building,' Ms Xinna said, adding that she knew of people in the Mongol community who had been arrested in recent weeks.

After seeing the violent backlash in Tibetan-populated regions, it appears the government became worried that other ethnic minorities such as the Mongols or Xinjiang's Uygur population would also use the Olympics to get their cause on the global stage.

'I am understanding of what happened in Tibet because Inner Mongolia has some similarities,' Ms Xinna said. 'It [the Tibet uprising] has been good and bad for us. After this, everyone is talking about these problems. Some of us are proud that the Tibetans stood up like that. They're tough.'

But similar protests are unlikely in Inner Mongolia because it lacks the critical mass of monks that led the way in Tibet. Not only is Buddhism central to Tibetan culture, but the monks, who have taken the brunt of the forced cultural changes, live together, creating a core group of protesters.

Also, there are far fewer Mongols in Inner Mongolia than there are Tibetans in Tibet. Mongols make up about 17 per cent of the Inner Mongolian population compared with 79 per cent Han Chinese, while Tibetans made up 95.3 per cent of of Tibet's officially registered population last year.

That does not mean Mongols are content with their lot. The government has been rapidly populating Inner Mongolia's grasslands with Han Chinese moved from other provinces, and the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre, a US-based group, says the ratio of Mongols to Han Chinese has shifted from five to one in 1949 to one to six today.

Also central to their complaints is the government policy of moving nomadic sheep herders - who also include some Han - off the grasslands and into villages and cities. Han immigrants introduced a more agrarian society which helped to speed up the degradation of the land, resulting in erosion problems, although the government blames the loss of grasslands on overgrazing by nomadic sheep herders.

Inner Mongolia sits on the historic border between agrarian and nomadic cultures, and this can be seen clearly when driving north from Hohhot across the Yin Mountains, which form the southern border of the eastern Gobi Desert. While tilled fields were once rare on the north side of the range, the landscape is now a patchwork of corn, oat and potato fields.

Water is so scarce that farmers dig small holes in their fields to catch what little rain does fall. Chronic erosion has left hillsides slumping into ravines and steep canyons snaking across the landscape, scars left by summer rains.

The government has in recent years begun forcing herdsmen to give up their nomadic lifestyle and take up farming or work in towns and villages, in what it says is an attempt to save the landscape.

'It is a change of identity. They are no longer herdsmen, they are urban residents who can be affected by modern culture and better education,' said Ren Yaping, executive deputy governor of Inner Mongolia. 'The government provides TV programmes in the Mongolian language, books, magazines, all in Mongolian.'

The gleaming new glass and steel Inner Mongolia Museum on the eastern edge of Hohhot would support the government's argument that it is providing tools to keep the culture alive, and the museum is popular with residents.

Presented last year as a gift to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region's formation, hall after hall of exhibits celebrate the Mongol culture and life on the grasslands. There is no mention, however, of how Inner Mongolia is now a predominantly Han Chinese region.

Any Inner Mongolian meeting, be it casual or official, begins with Han Chinese proudly pointing out which of those in the group are 'real Mongolians'. Many Han have adopted more Mongol culture than they realise.

'The role of Mongols has changed a lot. In China's 5,000-year history the Han have not always been the most powerful. Sometimes they were the minority and other groups were in control,' said Gangbatu, a Mongol middle school teacher in Hohhot.

'Now we live here together, and the Chinese who live in Inner Mongolia start to use some Mongolian words without thinking of it. I have many Chinese friends and they drink and eat with me in Mongol fashion. They like milk tea and finger mutton. The Chinese have their influences on us, and we have ours on them.'

However, the Mongolian human rights centre says an increasing number of Mongolian-language schools have been either forced to close or have been absorbed into the Chinese-language school system.

Bao Erjin is a young Mongolian, but does not speak Mongolian. 'When I was in school I was told to speak Chinese, that Chinese was my culture and language. My parents speak Mongolian and I can understand some, but I can't speak it,' he said.

Although stories such as Mr Bao's are common, the Mongolian language has fared surprisingly well, given the challenges it faces. The government tried to correct poorly written Mongolian signage ahead of last year's 60th anniversary. Most signs are bilingual.

About 4 million of Inner Mongolia's 24 million residents speak Mongolian, giving it slightly more native speakers than Mongolia, the independent neighbouring country. Inner Mongolia uses traditional Mongolian script while Mongolia, sometimes referred to as Outer Mongolia, uses the Cyrillic text of Russia. Foreign study of Mongolian has been concentrated in the Cyrillic form due to support from the US, which wants to leverage Mongolia's proximity to Russia.

Emyr Pugh, a Welshman who wrote the first commercial dictionary software for Classical/ Uygur-script Mongolian and lives in Hohhot translating a Mongolian novel into English, said he was impressed by the government's support of the language.

'It's infinitely preferable for Inner Mongolia to be a part of China rather than of Outer Mongolia because the culture would have been overwhelmed by the Cyrillic,' Mr Pugh said.

Most Mongols are relatively content, despite their eroding influence, thanks to the economic boom they are enjoying. Along with rapid expansion of mining for coal and other minerals, the region has enjoyed the largesse of national investment programmes.

'Inner Mongolia is the only region to enjoy the benefits of two national development programmes: the western region development plan and the rejuvenation of northeastern China. This has been a big help to our economy,' said Mr Ren, the deputy governor.

Investment in Inner Mongolia totalled 1.35 trillion yuan (HK$1.51 trillion) between 2003 and last year, compared to virtually no investment before that period, he said. About 75 per cent of that money came from outside the region.

And the possibilities the money brings are not lost on young people eager to join the economic boom, be it led by Han Chinese or Mongols.

'I'm happy that we're part of China and not Mongolia,' said Wu Riya, a young Mongol woman who moved to Hohhot from the west of the region to study English at the Inner Mongolian University. 'They're lazy and undeveloped. We get more development from China.'